World-Renowned Physicist, Hawking Collaborator and Social Innovator Neil Turok Goes To Waterloo: ‘We’ve Got Really Big Plans’
AN HOUR before the lecture, the overflow room in the basement of Waterloo Collegiate Institute was already filling up. I double-checked with the volunteer at the door, to make sure I understood what I was seeing. Every month during the school year, eager science fans snap up free tickets to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics’ public lecture as soon as they appear online, she told me. The fifty or so people in the cafeteria had missed out in the virtual stampede, but they were here anyway, hoping some of the lucky ticket holders wouldn’t show up, and otherwise resigned to watching University of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose on a screen in the basement. Penrose was a big draw, the woman said, but the run on tickets, the electric atmosphere, and the long line snaking down the hall outside the men’s washroom were regular features of physics night in Waterloo.
The auditorium itself looked more like Barack Obama’s Greek temple at last year’s Democratic convention than a high school stage, with elegant coloured lighting, spiral galaxies projected on the walls, and multiple backdrops featuring the twin Doric pillars of the Perimeter Institute logo. Shortly after 7 p.m., a tall man with dark, curly hair rose to introduce Penrose, leaving his windbreaker and backpack on the ground beside his front-row seat. Surveying the crowd of 600, he smiled. “This is actually my first day at work,” he began.
Neil Turok had recently left the ivy and cobblestones of the University of Cambridge, where he headed the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and collaborated closely with Stephen Hawking, to take over as the executive director of Perimeter, the upstart institute anchored by $150 million of BlackBerry creator Mike Lazaridis’s personal fortune. News of Turok’s defection had been greeted with consternation in British newspapers, and with raised eyebrows by some elite physicists. If Turok himself had entertained doubts, some of them had been allayed by the enthusiastic turnout for his own lecture in the same series seven months earlier, in March 2008. (He had unofficially accepted the new job a few weeks prior to that, though it wouldn’t be announced publicly until May.) “I must tell you that from the outside world, when we heard that this very surprising, innovative institute for theoretical physics was being placed in Waterloo, we did wonder,” he’d told the audience. “Why put it in the middle of nowhere? But I guess you’re the answer to that question.”